New Union Keeps Park City Lifts Turning

The loud buzzing horn usually perks up the confused, anxious crowd. It means the lift is about to start turning again, but sometimes not without a little nudge. “If the lift stops it’s usually just because someone fell off at the top,” says Liesl Jenkins, a Park City Mountain lift mechanic. “Otherwise, it’s just some minor nuisance’s fault or something like a lift operator forgetting to pull the stop button out.”

Jenkins and her colleagues quite literally keep the lifts running. When we spoke in the season’s early days, her team was waiting on a new gearbox to arrive for McConkey’s Express, a six-person detachable lift accessing some of the steepest expert terrain at Park City Mountain. Sounds complicated, but Jenkins assured me it was a quick job once the appropriate parts arrived. Guests would never notice anyone working on it, and suddenly the lift would be spinning. Much like ski patrollers, lift maintenance mechanics and electricians perform a ton of behind the scenes work that allows the resort to operate. And just like Park City’s ski patrollers, the resort’s lift mechanics have formed a union to support their often-underappreciated work.

“The final tally really solidified the validity of the unionization effort,” Jenkins says of the 35-to-six vote in favor of joining a union. Employment in the ski industry has become an increasingly fraught topic in recent years. Skyrocketing housing prices and cost-of-living increases in mountain communities have made hiring difficult. Meanwhile employers had become accustomed to exchanging meager pay for a romanticized outdoor lifestyle. The conflicting realities and resultant tensions came to a head last season when labor negotiations between Park City Mountain’s ski patrollers and the resort nearly led to a work stoppage before a new agreement was struck. Park City followed up by raising the minimum wage for employees across the board and offering more incentives and housing options for workers this season. But the feeling among those who perform the dangerous, difficult work of lift maintenance while enduring cold and exhausting 12-hour days, is there’s work left to do.

“The resort stepped up in some ways, and the narrative about it has shifted,” Jenkins says. “But for us as a department, we’re still struggling with unresolved issues. It’s great that the minimum wage is higher, but now wage compression is a factor. We weren’t compensated accordingly and in some cases are making the same amount as a lift ops foreman. Lift maintenance is a dangerous job that takes a lot of knowledge, skill and experience to perform competently, and it’s disheartening to feel we’ve been left behind.”

The lift maintenance mechanics and electricians have joined CWA Local 7781, the United Professional Ski Patrols of America. As of today, the unionization hasn’t affected wages or employment agreements, with union elections and negotiations still to come. New union members are hopeful the collective bargaining power will help address their specific needs. “We’re trying to bring this back to a local level. What works for Vail and Breckenridge and Crested Butte may not work here. We’re a different resort in a different community, and we want to address our specific needs. For example, almost all of us are commuting from significant distances,” Jenkins says.

Park City Mountain was understandably less than thrilled about the unionization effort, especially after making a significant investment to address issues that plagued staffing and operations last season. “While we are disappointed with the result, we are grateful to those who took time to vote,” Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Deirdra Walsh said in a statement provided by the resort. “We sincerely believe that direct communication works best to build strong relationships, ensure a safe working environment and allow every employee’s voice to be heard through direct and open dialogue. We have demonstrated this by listening and taking action this year—increasing wages and investing in affordable housing, mental health, leadership development and other perks and benefits. These are actions we took because of our commitment to our team members.”

Mountain communities are changing, and the employment landscape is evolving in response. As the idyllic vision of living in the mountains and working in the ski industry becomes increasingly elusive, something will have to give. According to Jenkins, people in town have taken notice. “The community support has been overwhelming, and we don’t take that for granted,” she says. More than likely, this won’t be the last domino to fall.  

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Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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